November 9, 2005
Like the updates to my community, this memoir is nearing completion. It will end in about a month and a half, near the fifth anniversary of Timmi’s death. As I look back at those days five years ago, when Timmi’s life was drawing to a close, I find myself thinking a great deal about beginnings and endings, and – more so, perhaps – about endings and beginnings.
Last month, the Jewish High Holidays ended with Simchat Torah (literally, “Joy in the Torah”), which celebrates the symbolic “marriage” of the Jewish people and the five Books fof Moses. We honor the Torah by dancing with it – as at a wedding – for seven “rounds.” Then, we conclude the yearly cycle during which all five Books are read aloud in the synagogue during services, by chanting the last portion of the Book of Deuteronomy. Each person present has a chance to be called up to read (or have another read for him/her), and to recite the traditional blessings on public Torah reading. Immediately after the very last verses of the Torah are read, the congregation listens to the first chapter of Genesis, and the cycle begins anew. We believe that Torah can never truly end – its conclusion will always generate a new beginning, as each year we add to and deepen our knowledge and understanding of the sacred text through new insights, based on past years' learning.
In order to enable all present to be called up and recite the blessings, most of the portion is read over and over again. However, the Torah’s concluding verses, as well as its first chapter, are read only once. It’s considered an honor to be called up to bless either of these readings, and those chosen for the honor are traditionally called “grooms” of the Torah and of Genesis. In our community, the women hold a separate Torah reading, complete with “brides” who are called up as the Books of Moses end and begin again. In the joyful spirit of the festival, which can get quite wild and even a bit rowdy, the “brides” sometimes put on veils or other trappings of a wedding.
This year, the Torah’s “bride” was chosen in honor of her receiving a PhD in Talmud. And I was called up to renew the cycle by blessing the reading from Genesis, in honor of my beginning my studies toward a new career in social work. A friend brought me her bridal veil, and I thought I'd wear it just for the fun. But in the end, when I was called up, I was unable to put on the veil. Although I felt grateful to have been chosen to perform this mitzva, I just couldn’t join in the boisterous atmosphere. As in each of the past five years, the ending and beginning of the Torah cycle touched a deep sadness in me.
On Simchat Torah ten years ago, Timmi was honored as Genesis' "bride,” almost exactly a year after she had chanted the first chapter of that Book at her Bat Mitzva. It was an optimistic time; Timmi had completed her first course of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, and was not showing any debilitating side effects from her treatment. After concluding the chapter, she recited the “Benediction of Deliverance,” by which Jews traditionally give thanks to God for enabling them to survive a dangerous experience. Many members of our community cried then, releasing the fears that Timmi’s illness – and treatment – had evoked, as well as their happiness at her recovery.
Now, I recited the blessings and stood before the Torah as a lovely young woman named Noa started the Book of Genesis on my behalf. The Torah's “bride” had chanted its concluding verses by herself; I'd thought of doing the same, but decided against it, knowing that I would get choked up and might be unable to read aloud. In a way, though, it was harder to have Noa read for me. My eyes filled with tears as her clear and strong chanting brought me back ten years, when Timmi stood in her place singing the chapter in her own sweet voice. But even more painful was the memory of my daughter standing in my own place, reciting the traditional blessings on Torah reading and adding her thanks to God for having survived the previous year.
The ongoing cycle of Torah reading reflects the cycles by which we all live. Foremost among these, perhaps, is that of the natural world, as the earth travels its yearly cycle around the sun. In the natural order of things, life and death themselves are a cycle, too. We are born, bring children into the world, and raise them to become adults who, we hope, will carry on our work in the world and will bear their own children. Then we die, leaving behind us the seed out of which life will continue to be generated, and our own lives’ purpose continued.
A child’s death shatters that natural cycle. And so as I stood before the Torah that day, I was intensely aware that Timmi's and my roles had been reversed: it was Timmi that should have been following in my footsteps, and her children – my grandchildren – in hers. Instead, it was I who was standing where she had before me, with no hope of grandchildren through whom my legacy will join hers to live on after I've gone to join her in the next world. God willing, I will have other grandchildren who will stand before the Torah and bless their heritage. God willing, these grandchildren will carry on the work I've tried to do in the world, adding their parents’ contribution and their own to what I myself have bequeathed them. None, though, will fully bear Timmi’s unique imprint.
I do not mean to say that the end of Timmi’s corporal life on this earth also extinguished her spirit. Timmi did leave a great deal of herself behind – in her writings, in her friends, and most of all in her family. Lisa, Sheila, Shari, Elaine, Aimee, and Danny – each carries a spark of Timmi inside, and I have no doubt that through them, and then through their children, her light will continue to be transmitted from generation to generation.
Still, a part of me – a part of us all – will never accept the tragic and unnatural truth that Timmi did not stay with us long enough to bring new life into the world before the end of her own.